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Peace in Our Time

ISSUE:  Autumn 1938

The wars of modern nations are not wagers of battle,

but crusades. The wars that threaten on the so-

called ideological front between Communists and Fascists, or dictatorships and democracies, will be crusades. The first secular crusade of modern times was the War of Propaganda of the French Revolution. Since then there have been some wars of the other kind—wars fought without great fervor for ideals not unduly high. But the war danger of today does not arise from a prospect of such conflicts. Great population masses cannot be set in motion for anything less than an issue between eternal right and satanic evil. None but the highest ideals will sustain war morale in the modern world. This will be found equally true on both sides of the next war’s no-man’s land.

A peculiar feature of the crusade is that it combines in itself extremes of barbarism and culture. As a war for an ideal—for Jerusalem the Golden, for Democracy, for the Rights of Small Nations—it brings man to a high level of heroic and poetic existence. In the attitude which it induces toward the enemy it repudiates even the commonest decencies of humanity. And of all possible crusades, no doubt the most fervid will be the next war to end war.

The generation that saw the rise and fall of the League of Nations has learned to classify attitudes toward world politics as idealistic on the one hand, realistic on the other. The idealists are those to whom that symbol of peace, the Covenant, means much; the realists are those to whom it means little. But the highly articulated character of the nationalist ideologies that have repudiated the League, the romantic tissue of which these ideologies are composed, and the colossal sacrifices of material interests to which they have led the peoples who have followed them, are enough to indicate that idealism is not monopolized by any camp. The idealists are all potential crusaders, whether they are ready to crusade for the nation, for the proletariat, for freedom, or for peace. In the setting of contemporary world politics, “realist” and “idealist” have become interchangeable terms.

The middle ages had another doctrine by which to classify the attitudes and principles of political action: the doctrine of the two swords. There was the sword spiritual and the sword temporal, the sword of Holy Church and the sword of the Holy Roman Empire. According to the great popes from Gregory to Boniface, the sword spiritual was above the sword temporal; according to the letter of Holy Writ, these two swords were enough.

Can we, taking into account the complex institutional metamorphoses of the past five centuries, identify today these two swords? What is the legacy of the medieval Church to modern politics, and what the legacy of the Empire? Unless we can distinguish today the things that are God’s from the things that are Caesar’s, we cannot render unto each his own.


Despite all that is happening in China and Spain, and all that has happened in Ethiopia and Central Europe, it is evident that there is still some universality in human organization. The world is not wholly anarchic. Even the networks of alignment for future wars that are woven daily and unraveled nightly like Penelope’s web, even the neutrality policies fashioned and refashioned, are evidence that the medium of world politics is a continuum.

The family of nations is older and far more deeply rooted than the League of Nations; the League was never more than an organ of the world commonwealth. The period of maximum growth of the family of nations preceded the organization of the League. Metternich dealt with a political world of two hundred million people; the World War closed on a world of nearly two billion. This tenfold increase is partly the result of a net population increase; it is also a result of the expansion of European politics to the dimensions of world politics. Non-European political systems have been successively incorporated into the European, some by colonization and conquest, some by initiation and reception. In 1856 the Ottoman Empire was admitted to the circle of the European powers. Japan and China adapted their practices of international intercourse to those of Western Europe in the last half of the nineteenth century. And every political society accepted into the family of nations is assumed to have consented without reservation to follow all the rules and practices of international law and custom. There has been no reciprocity; neither the Caliph nor the Son of Heaven contributed in practice or doctrine to the rules of the political world order. The order into which the novitiate states were initiated was purely and simply that which had grown in Western Europe.

From what roots in Europe did international political order grow? Not from feudalism, not from kingship, for these were essentially centrifugal institutions in respect of Europe. The two historic institutions that expressed the idea of universality were the Church and the Empire. Which of these is the parent of the family of nations?

Both Church and Empire were Holy and Roman. Both of them, in medieval times, laid claims to universal jurisdictions. Both claimed the right to sever a man from his social ties—by the ban of the Empire or the penalty of excommunication. And both could reward as well as punish—the Empire by granting dignities to the living, the Church by canonizing the dead. Each had its sword, the sword spiritual and the sword temporal. Both used war as an instrument of policy. Yet neither of them was, essentially, a war organization. The crusade was incidental to the life of the Church; and the Empire, though it gave Europe, especially Eastern Europe, a political framework within which armed resistance to the infidel and expansion among pagans could be organized, was not primarily a war-making machine, nor was it, like the Ottoman Empire, an army of occupation in permanent possession. Both were for Europe primarily symbols of law, not of armed force.

Today there are three universal jurisdictions: that of law in the family of nations, that of credit in the structure of capitalist economy, and that of experiment in the method of science. The universality of the family of nations is probably an expanded and diluted derivative of that which infused the Holy Roman Empire; the universality of the method of science is a secularized and dehumanized survivor of that which lived in the faith of the Church.

Universality does not survive in either of the bodies that are commonly regarded today as the institutional continuations of medieval Empire and Church. The Third Reich, though it covers much of the territory once the home of the Empire, is dedicated to a nationalism that is the very antithesis of the universalism of the Empire. The Roman Catholic Church, though its teaching is still keyed to a statement of universal human values, speaks today for only one-sixth of the people of the world, and for less than half of the world’s Christian population. And national patriotism, enemy of all universal jurisdictions, owes far more to the Church than to the Empire.


The distinction between spiritual and temporal was fundamental in Christian dogmatics. It did not exactly correspond to the metaphysical distinction between ideal and material. In a context removed from Christian dogma, it can best be translated as the distinction between short-term and long-term expectancies. Spiritual values exceeded temporal values because they would be realized through an infinity of time; temporal ills were endurable when measured against spiritual goods because the latter were eternal. The potency of Christian dogma as a determinant of rational conduct turned upon its ability to sell long-term investments in eternity by inducing men to make present sacrifices for the sake of benefits to be enjoyed, or pains to be avoided, after death. The spiritual sword symbolized the force of this feature of Christianity as an instrument of social control; the temporal sword symbolized those instruments of control which operate by granting day-to-day rewards, or by inflicting immediate pains.

Neither contemporary nationalism nor Communism could survive on a merely day-to-day conception of the objectives of human existence. Both direct the eyes of their devotees to a blessed future, the preparation for which justifies present inconveniences. Both make use of the spiritual sword.

The medieval popes asserted that the sword spiritual must be served by the sword temporal. This claim may have been bad jurisprudence, but it was undoubtedly good social psychology. The monarchs of the rising states rejected the papal claim to supremacy over them; rather they seized the sword spiritual into their own hands. They claimed divine rights to rule; they made themselves heads of state churches, openly in Protestant countries, covertly in those which were still in the Roman fold; they forced religious conformity upon their peoples, and laid down long-term state policies. “Austria ultimate in the world” was the mystic formula in Vienna. As divine-right monarchy died out, democracy claimed rights no less divine, and the religion of nationalism took over the forms even as it perverted the substance of the Christian cult. Carlton Hayes has described in his profound critique of nationalism the result of the metamorphosis:

To the modern national state, as to the medieval church, is attributable an ideal, a mission. It is the mission of salvation and the ideal of immortality. The nation is conceived of as eternal, and the deaths of her loyal sons do but add to her undying fame and glory. She protects her children and saves them from foreign devils; she assures them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; she fosters for them the arts and the sciences; and she gives them nourishment. Nor may the role of the modern national state, any more than that of the medieval church, be thought of as economic or mercenary; it is primarily spiritual, even other-worldly, and its driving force is its collective faith, a faith in its mission and destiny, a faith in things unseen, a faith that would move mountains. Nationalism is sentimental, emotional, and inspirational.

Must we not conclude that the supremacy of nationalism is in effect the supremacy of the sword of the spirit? What an ironic realization of the dreams of the great popes I Can we not recognize even in the extreme Nazi development of this cult—the idea of the mystic synthesis of blood and soil —a formula, the elements of which are present in the Old Testament? It is there that the idea of a race of chosen people bound by blood, and of a supremely symbolic territory, the Promised Land, is most clearly recognizable in the canon of medieval thought.

It was not in the form of Christianity, but in the form of nationalism, that the religion of the Western peoples became world-wide. China and India became nationalist; they did not become Christian. And nationalism is of all evangelical cults the one least fitted to be a world religion, for it creates over the area through which it spreads, not ties that bind, but walls that separate.

Communism, as Henry de Man has shown, is another derivative of the Christian heritage, with a mythology and liturgy no less imitative of that of the Church. Though it claims, like the Roman Church itself, a universal outlook, it speaks for only a fraction of the human race. Nationalism and Communism renounce their parent, and their parent disavows them; they are none the less true heirs, who have been wasting and spoiling the heritage.


It is the nation, not the family of nations, that is derived from the Holy Roman Church. The family of nations, on the other hand, is derived more closely from the Holy Roman Empire. The road from the Holy Roman Empire to the family of nations was traveled quietly. That we have often failed to take note of it is due to our tendency to accept national statehood as the measure of all political values. Since the Empire of the eighteenth century was clearly not a state, the German nationalists of the nineteenth century thought it must be a monstrosity. Napoleon’s dissolution of the Empire in 1806 seemed to destroy the last vestiges of its life and relegate it to history. The fall of Vienna in 1938 seemed to kill even the shadow. But meanwhile, through three centuries in which historians saw only a process of decline and death, the life-force of the Empire was passing into another body, which still survives as the basic element of universal order in the political world.

The Holy Roman Empire, from the days of the Great Interregnum in the thirteenth century, lived in Europe as a system of law without a centralized administration. This one feature is sufficient to suggest comparison with the modern family of nations. In the fourteenth century it took on a second feature, duplicated in our contemporary political world, by giving special duties and privileges to seven of its more important princes as Electors, or as one might say, as “Great Powers” within the Empire. The Concert of Europe, which assumed its clear-cut status only after the abdication of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1806, is the institutional successor to the College of Electors.

At the end of the fifteenth century came the next step in the development of the Empire: the proclamation of the “Peace of the Land.” The statute of the peace of the land outlawed war among the princes of the Empire and set up a court for the settlement of their disputes. Within the general system there was a regional arrangement of circles, each with its leading princes designated as the Electors were designated for the Empire as a whole. Throughout the whole fabric there was hierarchy, but not of the close-knit bureaucratic or administrative kind. It was rather a hierarchy of law. It left room for the most vigorous local spirit, and for all manner of leagues and organized communities of family interest or confession. Political consciousness spread up from the localism of city or land to a kind of universalism in the Imperial Diet and the Emperor. There was no end of pettiness in the dealings of the lesser princes with each other, and there were wars in the relations of the greater princes. But despite the disturbance of the Protestant Revolution and the Thirty Years’ War, the structure remained intact until 1806, and survived until 1866 in a modified form as the German Confederation. Its system of collective security did not prevent war between the greater princes, but it protected the separate existences of over two hundred small political units, the “immediate” members of the Empire, to the last. Its very success in maintaining collective security was turned against it by the later publicists of German nationalism, who deplored the survival of principalities that could never have protected themselves by force of arms.

The organization of collective security within the Empire served as a model upon which projects for collective security in Europe were later based. In the eighteenth century, the Abbe de St. Pierre’s project for rendering peace perpetual in Europe was a frank appeal for the adoption of the institutions of the Empire by Europe as a whole. And St. Pierre’s plan was substantially realized in the Metternich system that followed the defeat of Napoleon. The political complex of the early nineteenth century — Holy Alliance and Concert of the Five Great Powers—was managed from the ancient seat of the Empire by men who had been schooled in its jurisprudence, according to principles—including the principle of intervention—which were wholly in accord with its precedents. The Concert of Europe and the German Confederation divided between themselves in 1815 the heritage of the Holy Roman Empire.

The traditional line of development influenced the Paris Peace Conference. The underlying draft of the Covenant of the League of Nations, the Phillimore Plan, was a document based upon an interpretation of the role of the Concert as it had functioned in the days of Metternich and Castle-reagh. In a feature now seen as crucial, it followed the tradition by reserving all authority in the League to the Great Powers. The pressure of the smaller states, and Wilson’s confidence in the power of humanitarian world opinion, had the effect of shifting the basis of the Covenant away from this institutional tradition, to which Chamberlain now seeks to restore it.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, at the end of the Thirty Years’ War, stands as a landmark in the absorption of the Empire into the European states system. At Westphalia all the immediate princes of the Empire received the right to make treaties and alliances with princes outside the Empire. Their status in the Empire was thus converted into status in Europe. The role of the Emperor followed that of the princes in that his dignity came increasingly to be merely that of one among a number of great European mon-archs, and when the dignity was abolished in 1806 the repercussions were slight because the office had long ceased to be associated with power. (The monarchs of national states came in the course of time to find their offices no less superfluous in the political societies that had once been organized around them.)

The Europeanizing of the Empire was marked, moreover, by a growing interpenetration of territories. Dynasties whose seats were within the system spread outward; dynasties whose seats were outside the Empire came in. The Habsburgs spread down the Danube, the Hohenzollerns along the Baltic, the Wettins struggled for the Polish crown, the Brunswicks obtained the crown of England, the Bavarian Wittelsbachs sought a crown in the Belgian Netherlands, and the royal houses of Denmark and Sweden gained lands within the Empire. It was therefore inevitable that the relations that had once been held within the net of the Empire should require a wider net to contain them. The Treaties of Westphalia were made law of the Empire, not by the procedure of legislation in the Reichstag but by the procedure of negotiation in the first modern diplomatic Congress. The medieval Empire had been actively European; the modern, passively. Only in this way could the heritage of universality have been preserved.

While the status of princes and of the Emperor was shifting to a European base, the law of the Empire was fertilizing the soil out of which international law was developing. The Peace of the Land had not only established courts to judge disputes between princes, but had recognized the validity of Roman law. In France the reception of Roman law contributed to the development of royal power by virtue of its application to the relations of a prince to his subjects. In the courts of the Empire it had a different currency in providing the basis of the relations of princes with each other. The Roman law elements of substantive international law, the form of international law as a net of personal duties of personal sovereigns to each other, and even such procedural features of international practice as arbitration, were richly developed in the Empire and came diluted into application in the family of nations while the principalities of the Empire were becoming the sovereignties of Europe.


It may be that the resemblance between the Holy Roman Empire and the family of nations is a result not so much of imitation as of similarity of situation. In both cases a residual fabric of legality subsists in the relations of a group of political units of different degrees of power. But even at that, the Empire’s history is a treasure-house of experience calling for interpretation and application to contemporary problems.

Let us consider the kind of world organization that is suggested by the example of the Empire. It is first of all a world dominated by a few Great Powers. It is divided into circles of influence, with leading powers in each. The hierarchies of law and loyalty run all the way from the top to the bottom of the political pyramid. The extravagances of national patriotism are not overcome by supernational patriotism, but by quiet disintegration into provincial and local loyalties. Wars there may be, but on the fringes; wagers of battle, not crusades; fought by technicians in warfare, not by peoples; as wars of adjustment, not of annihilation. There is for every area of power a relation intermediate between isolation and solidarity with every other area of power, and the object of political technique should be to find the appropriate relationship. As such relationships are stabilized they become part of the living law. Statements of law do not create, but record what is already created. (Witness the abortiveness of the effort to outlaw war.) Such a system might bring with it collective security, but on a day-to-day basis, as practice, not as religion.

It was in Central Europe, where the Empire left its deepest mark on the political world, that the conflict between the religion of nationalism and the pure political tradition of the Empire was sharpest. The revolutionists of 1848, devotees of the religion of nationalism, could neither organize Central Europe nor divide it. Their work and their problem have been misunderstood. The German National Assembly in Frankfurt that resulted from the uprisings of 1848 began its constitution-making, as is well known, by elaborating a comprehensive bill of rights. These were rights which the new Germany would have guaranteed to every German citizen. German historians have scoffed mercilessly at the Frankfurt Assembly for its preoccupation with a bill of rights when it should have been organizing the framework of a national administration. And yet the Assembly was more practical than was realized. Roth the Empire that vanished in 1806 and the German Confederation that succeeded it in 1815 had been guarantors of due process of law. The Frankfurt Assembly was adding to living tissue when it wrote the bill of rights; but when, in order, as it thought, to make a more purely national Germany, it went further and ordered the Habsburg Monarchy to choose between dissolution (into a German and non-German state) or exclusion from the new Germany, it was destroying living tissue. This program meant the exclusion of the Austro-Germans from Germany; it would have forced the partitioning of the Germany the Assembly had intended to unite. It failed.

Then Schwarzenberg, the great Austrian minister, offered his alternative plan. He would have reconstituted a College of Electors—a Directory of the larger states in Germany-leaving the German princes each in full charge of the administration of his government. Schwarzenberg would have held all Central Europe together, but in a framework resembling that of the Empire. A similar plan was promoted by the Great-Germany party in the 1860’s, and adopted by a Congress of Princes in 1863. But Bismarck opposed Prussian state patriotism to the tradition of the Empire, went the full length of a war of secession from the German Confederation, and accomplished the partitioning of Germany by separating the North Germans from the Austrians. Then, having partitioned Germany and divided Central Europe at the level of constitutional law, he reunited it at the level of international law by means of the permanent Dual Alliance between the new German Empire and the Austro-Hun-garian Empire.

With the defeat of the Central Powers in the World War, the religion of nationalism proved strong enough to break Central Europe into fragments, and the sentiment of international solidarity was inadequate to offer a corresponding guarantee of order at the level of international law. That region is now one of the most troubled in the world, and no crusade will end its trouble. It may in the future find stability in so far as it works its way back toward the pattern of the Holy Roman Empire and develops from that base.


What is true of Central Europe in the little may apply also to the world at large.

The doctrine of the two swords, applied to modern international problems, distinguishes two techniques for the improvement of the world’s political order. The first is the promotion of a religion of internationalism and international solidarity by which the religions of nationalism are to be confounded and overcome. As a possible foundation for such a religion we have the world community of ideas in the field of science. The validity of a laboratory experiment in chemistry is acknowledged everywhere in the world on equal terms. It remains to bring about a situation in which the same accord will be given by men’s minds throughout the world to a statement that such and such an act constitutes unjustified aggression. The religion must further so motivate men that this statement, thus believed, will arouse a sufficient response to stir them everywhere to action against the aggressor. From an effective world religion to an effective world state would be only a step.

Auguste Comte proposed in the nineteenth century to establish on the basis of positive science a religion of humanity; but since the world of positive science was thing-centered, not man-centered, the religion of humanity gave rise only to pale and subordinate loyalities that shriveled at the first contact with national patriotism. Yet it was upon that foundation that the statesmen of 1919 undertook to establish what they thought would be a new world order. The characteristically spiritual quality of this outlook on politics is attested by its characteristic promise of permanent blessings to be obtained in a future for which no present sacrifice is too great —even the sacrifice of a new crusade.

The second technique takes international law and the family of nations as it finds them. It works from day to day with engagements of relatively short term. It measures distances and limits commitments. Though we may not try to guarantee that nobody will ever be at war, we can reasonably anticipate that somebody will always be at peace. Even during the World War there were in Europe fifty million people whose governments were at peace. This figure—fifty million—was the approximate total population of Western Europe in the fifteenth century. American policy and opinion is learning this second technique, in which there is neither a world mission nor splendid isolation, but something safer and sounder than either. Our almost scholastic evaluation of legality, which causes us to refuse recognition to acts of conquest, and our practical regional hegemony in the New World are expressions of a statecraft that would have been at home in the Holy Roman Empire. It does not promise us eternal peace—that is for the next world. But it may bring us peace in our time.


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